By JOHN CROFT, FAA
In Akron, Ohio, a flight department operating a wholly different kind of animal — an airship — took the ADS-B-In plunge early on as a strategic move.
Michael Dougherty, chief pilot for Goodyear Airship Operations, says when the company was working with Germany’s airship builder, Zeppelin, on the cockpit design for its three new airships seven years ago, long-term choices had to be made or pay the price later.
Goodyear, which uses its semi-rigid airships to provide TV coverage above sports events and to travel the country promoting the company brand, knew it had to install ADS-B Out for the FAA’s 2020 mandate because of where it flies, but it had to take a gamble that ADS-B In would be worth the extra investment, according to company officials.
“Once we build an airship it’s really difficult to go back and change the certification for a major modification on the avionics,” says Dougherty. “So we wanted to make sure all the tools that we thought we would need down the road would be included at the start.”
ADS-B In was one of those tools, and it has paid off already, he says.
Goodyear’s three Zeppelin NT airships are based in Southern California, Florida and Akron. When traveling between venues and occasionally going back to Akron for maintenance, the airships often transition through very busy airspace at low altitudes.
When traveling to events in the New York City area, the airships might fly up and down the hectic Hudson River corridor, or for games in Los Angeles, traverse the busy low-altitude VFR helicopter routes that allow general aviation traffic to navigate across the city without disrupting commercial traffic.
“We can be flying the corridor with four helicopters and an aircraft towing a banner,” says Dougherty. “ADS-B is a check and balance on the pilot’s eyes being outside the cockpit and the possibility that air traffic controllers may be too busy to call out traffic.”
As with other ADS-B In users, the 13 Goodyear pilots — Dougherty as chief pilot and four pilots at each location — give high marks to the aural alerting features that avionics or software providers typically include with ADS-B In applications.
“It alerts you when you have a lot of other things going on, which we often do,” Dougherty says. “We can fly single-pilot TV events where we have a pilot in the cockpit and a camera operator in the back of the gondola.”
Communications can be complicated for blimp pilots. Dougherty says pilots sometimes have to sort out simultaneous directions from the TV director on the ground, the camera operator at the back of the gondola, and air traffic control.
“Since the pilot’s primary function is still to aviate, navigate, communicate, the audible alerts from ADS-B are really helpful,” Dougherty says. “That’s one of our biggest benefits from ADS-B In — enhanced situational awareness and helping the pilot maintain a safe environment under high workload and busy airspace.”